Seed Treatments in Jeopardy

Seed Treatments in Jeopardy

Neonicotinoid loss would carry mammoth consequences for farmers

Regulators would praise the death of neonicotinoid insecticides. But, according to a comprehensive study done by AgInfomatics and commissioned by the Growing Matters consortium, it would come with a colossal $848 million bill for U.S. farmers. Once the effects work through the overall U.S. economy, losses could end up as high as $4.3 billion.

In 2014, Growing Matters, an industrycoalition including Bayer CropScience, Syngenta and Valent U.S.A. Corp, began releasing the study in a series of reports, led by two researchers: Pete Nowak, principal of AgInfomatics and professor emeritus, University of Wisconsin–Madison, and Paul Mitchell, associate professor, Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics, University of Wisconsin–Madison.

The study is the first extensive look at the economic value of neonicotinoids in North America. It covers agricultural and non-agricultural uses from 1993 to 2014. It is comprised of 1,550 efficacy studies on field trials, generating 4,314 observations. Specifically for agriculture, 1,700 growers and ag professionals were interviewed in the U.S. and Canada.

The majority of neonicotinoid trials showed yield bumps. “If you look at neonics versus untreated acreage, the benefit ranged from a 3.6% increase in soybeans to a 71.3% bump for potatoes,” Nowak says. Average yield benefits exceeded average treatment costs across all crops tested.

Neonicotinoids are used in foliar, seed treatment and soil applications. In corn, cotton, sorghum, soybean, and wheat, 98% of acres using neonicotinoids employ seed treatments. By volume, seed treatments are the most prevalent form of neonicotinoid use.

Without neonicotinoids, growers would turn to alternative insecticides with higher application rates. Total use of pyrethroids would quadruple and organophosphates would triple, Mitchell adds. Alternative insecticides would be soil-applied in the furrow or foliar-applied on the surface. Pared down, growers would lose a systemic application that goes into the plant and only attacks insects that bite the plant. 

As a result, switching to a foliar application with organophosphates and pyrethroids would kill most 
insects on the leaves or in the vicinity when spraying occurs. “A non-neonic scenario will have a tremendous impact on pollinators and beneficial insects,” Nowak says. “Alternative pesticides will kill them all.”

European farmers, currently under a trial neonicotinoid ban that might serve as a precedent for the rest of the world, have few options. “Without neonicotinoids, European growers have to bear the yield loss, drop the crop or use other pesticides,” Mitchell says. “There are no other practical choices.”

U.S. farmers already recognize the significant values associated with neonicotinoids, but the AgInfomatics 
research provides a unprecedented set of facts and concrete numbers. 

“The vital neonic seed treatment tool may be taken away. We’ve provided the data, and now farmers and ag groups have to protect their valuable neonic tool,” Nowak says.

After 20 years of research, Nowak and Mitchell prefer to let the neonicotinoid debate rest on data. “We’re transparent, and that’s the beauty of science,” Mitchell says. “Look at the data. If anyone or any group wants to attack us because of this study, they’ll have to deal with the data.”

To access the AgInfomatics reports on neonicotinoid values, you can visit

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